New Jersey plastic bag ban poses greater challenges for low-income people with disabilities, advocates say

Richelle Lee was peppered with questions about New Jersey’s upcoming single use plastic bag banwhich begins May 4.

A recent one caused pause from the New Jersey NAACP spokeswoman.

“I literally asked a church I know well, will (bag ban officials) be sitting in church on Sunday? Waiting for us to set up to distribute meals to people,” Lee said. “They think about that.”

Church leaders wanted to know if they could face fines on May 8, Mother’s Day, the first Sunday service after the ban began, Lee said.

The answer is no.

Pantries of churches and nonprofits get a six-month reprieve of the bag ban to help make the transition. And any penalties from the styrofoam ban will come with a warning to begin with, though state enforcement officials understand that people will still make the switch, officials said.

But that’s not the point, Lee said.

“How awful is that? It tells me people are worried,” she said.

Venus D. Majeski, director of development and community relations for a non-profit organization New Jersey Institute for the Disabled, was also approached with questions. How much do reusable bags cost? Will I be able to afford them? Could they raise the prices of these bags? Where can I get free resources?

There are only days left until New Jersey’s strict ban on plastic, paper and polystyrene takes effect, questions have only piled up for low-income and disabled residents, advocates told NJ Advance Media. Governor Phil Murphy signed the law on November 4, 2020, creating an 18-month track to help people prepare for the ban and provide free resources. But while many support environmentally friendly measures, some organizations have said many of the finer details of the new restrictions have not been effectively communicated to all communities. Resources, they added, are also still badly needed.

The law that created the bag ban includes a $1.5 million grant, spread over three years, for the nonprofit NJ Clean Communities Council to provide educational services and free reusable bags to communities. Since last May, officials from the organization said, awareness-raising activities have taken place in the form of events, giveaways, billboards, signage at Motor Vehicle Commission offices, a free online toolkit, social media posts and partnerships with media organizations, business groups and radio stations.

But the news did not reach everyone, according to a recent survey by Monmouth University.

Around 58% of survey respondents said plastic bags should either be banned or only available for a nominal fee. But only 28% of residents are aware of the inclusion of paper bags, according to the survey.

Paper bags will still be allowed in stores other than grocery stores such as boutiques and bodegas. Any store 2,500 square feet or more (average is approximately 38,000 square feet) will be prohibited from selling or giving away single-use plastic bags. This includes big box stores with grocery sections like Target and Walmart. Polystyrene will be prohibited to all types of businesses.

“We are definitely focusing our bag distribution program on overcrowded communities,” JoAnn Gemenden, executive director of the New Jersey Clean Communities Council, told NJ Advance Media. “We have worked with food pantries and food banks. The City of Newark… will do additional outreach in English and Spanish at its bus stops.

“(Newark) is definitely an area that we’re most concerned about,” she added, noting that the organization is planning more outreach for the state’s largest city.

NJ Transit’s bag ban ads will be focused in urban areas like Camden, Trenton, Paterson, Newark, Elizabeth and Atlantic City, Gemenden said.

“Small stores, including bodegas, may not have an organization that represents them where they get all the messages they need and that’s my biggest concern. We certainly don’t want to create a bigger expense on behalf of those stores,” Gemenden said.

That’s why it will be important to work with county officials to make sure customers and owners are aware, she said.

Businesses or individuals who violate the new law will receive a written warning for the first violation, a fine of $1,000 per day for the second violation, and a fine of $5,000 per day for the third violation, the says the NJDEP.

But some experts said the change should come gradually, as people are likely to be caught off guard.

“We need to be patient and help people adapt and find solutions and not judge and fine immediately,” said Matthew Schuler, assistant professor of biology at Montclair State University.

“I think before (the state) imposes fines, it should study how the bag ban affects people in different areas. Which communities are accelerating change related to the loss of plastic bags and other products and which are facing challenges? They should think about how we can overcome and tackle these challenges together…because it will help us with future plastic bans.

Majeski of the New Jersey Institute for Disabilities thinks about mobility when considering the impact of the bag ban on the daily lives of residents with disabilities.

“If you’re traveling in a mobility device like a wheelchair, it might not be so easy to fit these reusable bags in your backpack,” said Majeski, whose organization added information on the ban bags on emails she sends to residents. . “Most people also don’t know that the ban also applies to paper bags and that the May 4 deadline is fast approaching.”

For Majeski, outreach to residents with disabilities she saw became rare, she said.

Joann Williamson, a nurse at Union, learned about the state’s bag ban by reading news reports.

“The new bags we have to use have to be strong enough that they won’t break. I don’t know if they are,” said Williamson, 60, who deals with spinal issues. “But I think it will be a problem. Most people have a disability after they reach a certain age and I don’t think they’ve thought about it.

Williamson, who “has no choice but to buy reusable bags now”, said she was worried about the added expense and “hygiene” of bag alternatives and whether they would be in able to comfortably support their purchases.

Reusable bags on sale in stores currently range from 35 cents to $6.99 and $7.99 for a premium tote bag, NJ Advance Media found. Several – from Acme, ShopRite and Trader Joe’s – range from $1.29 to $1.99. While that may not seem like much, for some families “every dollar counts,” Lee said.

Another concern for Majeski is residents with disabilities, who rely on grocery delivery, finding themselves with an overabundance of reusable bags that they will have to buy every time.

“I think that’s the biggest concern,” Majeski said.

An important consideration, Majeski added, is the various disabilities that may be involved — including residents with dyslexia, as well as those who are deaf or require a mobility device.

Larry Hajna, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency is working to reach all residents, regardless of circumstance.

“NJDEP has worked collaboratively with NJ Clean Communities (NJCC) and NJ Business Action Center (NJBAC) to produce multilingual and multimedia materials to reach as many people as possible,” Hajna said in a statement. “In addition, the NJCC and NJBAC have met with several chambers of commerce representing minority communities in the state over the past year.”

NJ County prepares for bag ban.

Camden County Commissioner and Sustainability Center Liaison Jonathan Young Sr. organizes a plastic bag replacement at the new Sustainability Building in Blackwood, NJ on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.David Hernández | For NJ Advance

The challenges of the ban on low-income families will likely be practical as well, said William Pennock, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at NJIT. Newark College of Engineering.

Pennock said families without a washing machine at home to clean their bags or who depend on public transport for shopping will have additional hurdles to overcome.

Louise Wootton, professor of biology and chair of Georgian Court University’s sustainability committee, said providing resources to people and businesses is only half the battle.

“We need to find these leaders in different communities. I think people tend to hear messages from their peers better,” Wootton said. “If you find another person who shares your culture or upbringing, they will have the ability to find those notes of common ground. This will allow the conversation to start fruitfully. I don’t think anyone wants to feel preached.

Anecdotally, the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP has heard from many people who are unaware of the nuances of the law to come. Education rather than punishment will be key in the coming months, officials said.

“I want to make it clear that we support the ban,” said Marcus Sibley, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference Environmental and Climate Justice. “But we also think deployment is important. Sometimes the deployment shows the imbalance and inequity of your system. Because deployment doesn’t always reach the people who need to hear it.

Throughout April, the NJ NAACP released 17 principles of environmental justice on Instagram as part of a social media campaign. Sibley said the organization plans to continue to help residents navigate the new bag ban and “have conversations with those in power” about where more resources are needed.

For more information on the ban, visit Still have questions about New Jersey’s plastic bag ban? Ask them here.

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Steven Rodas can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @stevenrodasnj.

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